Issue 53 (2016)

Petr Buslov: Motherland (Rodina, 2015)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2016

The Indian coastal state of Goa is known for its mix of religious diversity, rave culture, and what might be described as a hippy beach aesthetic that attracts international tourists and expats. Director Buslov, best known for the Bimmer series and his biopic of Vladimir Vysotskii, emphasizes that Goa’s reputation as a place both to find oneself and to get lost was central to his conception of the film:

To make this film, I had to become myself a part of Goa community, of Goa people. I’ve heard a great deal of stories and legends. Passports that were burned at sunset, children that ran away from their parents, former bodyguards that now teach yoga, former businessmen and fat bankers that became vegetarians, throwing off the shackles of society to stay here for good. All these people seemed to blot out all their previous life to start a new one in India. (Antipodes)

rodinaGoa’s combination of Western and Eastern influences (it was a Portuguese colony, and openly celebrates its tolerance of Hinduism, Christianity and other faiths) make it a rich setting for a story about a collection of Russian characters abroad, each of whom has a particular perspective on his or her motherland that is shaped and altered by the apparent (and often illusory) contrasts between the tropical setting and distant, cold Russia.

The central narrative is a father-daughter melodrama. Igor’ (Smoliakov), a Russian oligarch, is on his private jet arguing with his teenage daughter, Eva (Aksenova), who professes her hatred for him and tells him she wants to be left alone. He calls her bluff and orders the plane to land so she can get off. They touch down randomly, in Goa. Almost immediately after she walks off into the jungle with nothing but her backpack, Igor’ regrets his rash decision and hurries to the nearest town to find her.

rodinaIn the first third of the film, Buslov’s camera follows Igor’ around as he searches for his daughter with increasing desperation, introducing us to the other characters along the way. Eva quickly falls in with a pair of violent Russian heroin addicts, Dimon and Lenia. We meet Makar (whose name, we are explicitly reminded, is an anagram of “karma”; played by Petr Fedorov), a holiday-maker from Novosibirsk who, at the end of his two-week vacation, finds that the local LSD dealer offers a quicker path to enlightenment than practicing yoga with the (also Russian) guru on the beach. We find Kristina, another Russian tourist, at a crossroads when her husband tells her he no longer loves her, sending her too into the drug underground of the local Russian community.

The drug theme provides one of many metaphorical contexts in which to examine the question of East versus West. The LSD dealer (Kosmos) explains to the corrupt but wise local police chief, Deepak, that he offers his more spiritual consciousness-altering substance as a counterbalance to opioid drugs, tainted by their destructive and violent effects, as well as their association with the American drug trade. In this, he finds a degree of common cause with Deepak, who is constantly (and somewhat hypocritically) counselling his motorcycle-obsessed grandson, Ramish, to follow Gandhi’s lead and shun the desire for money and worldly goods.

rodinaThe exotic setting, however, also becomes the site of conflicts internal to Russia, as Makar clashes with the materialistic and violent Dimon and Lenia. The pair escalate the fight into a mass brawl involving a local Russian biker/hippy gang, and even a passing tourist bus full of what looks like a group of Russian athletes/patriots (“Brothers! Jews are beating Russians!” shouts Lenia to the bus for help). When the local police arrive to break it up, Makar tells them to leave, as it is not their business (i.e., is a strictly Russian matter, to be resolved by Russians).

Igor’s character arc is possibly the most complex. At first he is a stereotype of the ultra-rich Russian alpha-male, estranged from his wife and daughter and concerned mainly with inspiring fear and obedience in his subordinates and anyone else he meets. In his first hours in India, he completely resists the local culture and rhythms in every way, verbally assaulting the audience at a rave with threats to “wipe them out” once his “people from Moscow” arrive. He drinks a glass of mango lassi and his body almost immediately rejects it as the nectar of an utterly foreign culture (and he vomits it on a local guru, for good measure). He is soon absorbed into the Goan social scape, however, with the help of a spiked drink, and is also the focus of Buslov’s filmic meditations on symbolic and actual death.

rodinaEva, at first depicted as a spoiled rich teenager, later becomes one of the clearest metaphors for Russian values when she becomes pregnant after being raped by one of the addicts. She turns to a local Catholic priest, who tells her the story of another unwanted pregnancy (a virgin who was “raped by a Roman soldier”) and thus explicitly makes Eva a Mother-of-God figure. Her return to Russia at the end of the film (she is the only character to return willingly) suggests that the seeds of wisdom she acquired during her prodigal stay in the (not so alien after all) Indian hinterlands might take root back in the titular motherland itself.

Although it begins slowly, and resorts occasionally to explicit speechifying by various characters about life, death, fate, faith, consciousness and, of course, Russia, Buslov’s film manages to use the potentially distracting Goan setting to good effect, and the ensemble cast copes well with the filmmakers’ demandingly complex characters that populate the film.

Seth Graham
University College London

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Motherland, Russia, 2015
Color, 128 min., in Russian, English, and Konkani
Director: Petr Buslov
Screenplay: Andrei Migachev, Aleksei Shipenko, Petr Buslov
Cinematography: Fedor Liass
Music: Aleksandr Simonenko
Cast: Andrei Smoliakov, Liubov’ Aksenova, Petr Fedorov, Ekaterina Volkova, Shiv Subramanyam, Jay Thakkar
Producers: Sergei Sel’ianov, Petr Buslov, Sergei Iakhontov
Production: CTB, Aktiabr’

Petr Buslov: Motherland (Rodina, 2015)

reviewed by Seth Graham© 2016